Officials discuss railroad’s future

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 10, 2010

NATCHEZ — Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland knows about the irreversible impact of losing rail transportation.

“Transportation is number one,” Copeland said of attracting businesses to communities.

“If you don’t have that then you’re not going to be in the game.”

Copeland shared his sentiment at a recent meeting about the uncertain future of the 66-mile railroad from Natchez to Brookhaven owned by Salt Lake City-based Natchez Railway, LLC.

Vidalia found itself in a similar situation in the 1980s when the Louisiana Midland Railway, which ran 76.7 miles from Packton, La., to Vidalia, ceased operations and was sold due to poor conditions and lack of use.

Copeland, who served as an alderman at the time, said pulling up those tracks more than 20 years ago caused irreparable damage to the city’s chances for economic development. He said that at least one company considering locating in Vidalia chose Tallulah, La., instead, due to Tallulah’s advantage of a railway system.

Natchez Inc. Chairman Sue Stedman said if the Natchez track is pulled up, it will likely never be put back down.

Natchez Inc., the county’s new economic development engine, hosted the meeting to pool information and rally support for the railroad.

Stedman said Natchez Inc. hosted the meeting because a lot of people were trying to attack the problem on an individual basis. Thirty-five officials from Adams and Franklin counties and Concordia Parish attended the meeting.

Officials from American Railcar Industries, a railroad car repair and refurbishing company in Bude that depends on the railroad, also attended.

Meadville Mayor Sonny Dickey said the creation of an official authority to own and operate the railroad is one possibility.

Stedman said although creating an authority is a possibility, it would involve liabilities and other complications. In addition, the railroad is also in need of repairs.

However, Stedman said the consensus of everyone at the meeting was to do whatever it takes to keep the railroad.

“Federal, state, local…We’re going to solicit everybody’s help that we can possibly get,” Stedman said.

She said in order to move forward, it is important to keep everyone affected by the railroad’s future on the same page.

“There’s always strength in numbers, and we’re trying to attack this with as much strength as we can possibly muster,” she said.

Stedman said Natchez Railway can do what it wants with the railroad, so it might be a difficult to control what happens.

Dickey said the loss of 100 jobs at ARI in Franklin County would be the immediate effects of losing the rairoad.

Natchez Railway purchased the railroad last year, committing to a two-year run. Dickey said he heard next June marks the end of two years, so he hopes a plan goes into effect by spring.